A Journey to the Unknown

I traveled last week to the east coast for my grandson’s wedding. The weather for the occasion was bittersweet, a blue sky full of optimism for the future, the bride and groom radiant with hope undarkened by clouds drifting overhead, but some of the smiling guests in rows of chairs under an arbor bearing the invisible scars of the glaringly common phenomenon of divorce.

As the bride and groom took their places to exchange vows, I saw the little boy who cried in the night, inconsolably, for no obvious reason. I saw the little boy I carried in my arms, letting him touch with a kind of awe the ordinary things in the room as I named them, a clock face, the petal of a wilting flower in a vase, the scallop of a picture frame trapping a stranger with an oddly fixed expression.

This little boy with an aura of sweetness that stayed with him as he grew up is now over six feet tall and has a dark beard, and I imagined him with his own child in his arms, my great-grandchild, a little girl or boy unaware of a great mass of ancestry, sunken from sight but there, like a reef filled with brilliantly-colored life but also a shoal awaiting the unwary navigator.

The wedding ceremony was held in a formal garden in a woodsy suburb of a major city, where the wind sighing in the tops of the trees was a dominant sound like the sounds of cars and planes and other unfortunate devices of civilization that dominate the environment where I live. The bride in a traditional white gown with a train but no veil, smiling steadily although it’s always tempting to speculate upon the thoughts, the fears and apprehensions seeking attention, like a pet or needy child.

The groom and his companions in natty blue three-piece suits with matching brown shoes, the bridesmaids in yellow dresses, which brought to mind a field of flowers with yellow petals radiating from a blue center although I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a flower, perhaps in an illustration or cartoon. I don’t know what was behind the choice of the colors, whether any symbolism was intended, but the effect was in keeping with spring, with ideas of budding and fecundity, of renewal.

The exchange of vows was suitably moving and I’m certain there were damp eyes and welling in chests and throats. My daughter, the groom’s mother, told me she was thus affected and I felt definite stirrings of my own. I married her mother in the chambers of a municipal judge in the city hall of a midwest college town. The witnesses were two women recruited from another city hall office, and when the formalities were concluded all three congratulated us and wished us well although they surely knew that there was a good chance that our marriage would end up as another court’s business, which, indeed, it did.

We stepped into the world, happy but unprepared for anything that was to come, including the responsibility of raising a child. We were filled with a kind of optimism for a future clear of troubles, obstacles, tests; free of pain as futures at such moments should rightly be, free of history, which is inscribed like a gravestone with the facts of birth and death, just names and numbers, no record of bitterness, acrimony, and the erasure of lives lived together. Nothing nodding to the irony of the vows so solemnly pronounced.

One of my grandson’s groomsmen was his older brother, who is married and has a nearly two-year old daughter. He and his wife also live on the east coast, and this was the first time I had seen my great-granddaughter. I introduced myself, a strange being with white hair and white beard who grinned foolishly and made sounds that may have been incomprehensible or merely unimportant, floating past her severely limited but rapidly-expanding world. She seemed only to want to run everywhere, as if this world might suddenly disappear before she had time to explore it. Her recent mobility must have felt exhilarating, little legs churning, taking her on great epic journeys into a vast unknown.

In a sense, I am taking the same journey, and while so many things that are awe-inspiring and magical to her are commonplace to me, my destination, like hers, is unknowable. It is the end of life, but how do I make sense of the gravestone with its name and dates and maybe a droll or pithy inscription as a state of being? From where I sit, writing this, I can see trees, the roof of a house, a wedge of distant mountain below a tall swath of sky. I can see the objects in this room—a piano, a bookcase crowded with books, a clock, the cluttered surface of a desk, these words in a square box within the larger rectangle of a screen crowded with matters that await and sometimes clamor for attention.

Is the transition from this moment to the name and dates and inscription like the flicking of a switch? One moment light, the next dark, devoid of sound, of any sensation? All my life I’ve created imaginary worlds, but I cannot conceive of such a moment in words and sentences. This difficulty doesn’t invoke fear, but a kind of puzzlement. When I was a kid I would take things apart, like old clocks and pieces of junked machinery. I was always interested in knowing how things work, even setting out to become an engineer, although that endeavor capsized in the stormy seas of advanced physics and mathematics.

But when all the extraordinarily complex systems of a human body shut down, throw in the towel, so to speak, what will I feel? What will I see? What will I know? When I took something apart and lost a part needed to put it back together, or put it back together and had a part left over, my father would say, Curiosity killed the cat. We lived on a farm, where cats were part of the fauna, some tame enough to be pets, some virtually feral. One day a cat might disappear, another day a new cat might appear. Sometimes the vanished cat might even reappear, and rarely, a cat would be found in a corner of the barn or out in the weeds, cold and dead. But I never knew how the cat’s curiosity led to its demise, and I didn’t know until later that such proverbs had meaning beyond the purely literal.

One day, unless we’ve managed to kill our planet before then, my great-granddaughter will be an old woman. I hope she will be able to look back on a happy and fulfilling life although I know that many lives are like my own, littered with the rusty artifacts of mistakes and missteps, with the tangled evidence of wrong turns and ill-conceived ideas. And yet, despite a history as messy as the plate on that child’s highchair, I am here. I am here, with a firm or at least adequate grasp of reality, continuing a journey begun much as hers has begun, running and poking into the shadows and the light, finding out what’s there and what it all means.

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